What is it about priests and sex?

Italy's 'Vanity Fair' magazine showing Archbishop Georg Ganswein on the cover. Archbishop Georg Ganswein, Pope Benedict's private secretary, dubbed "Gorgeous George" by the Italian media, is now a real-life cover boy. (Tony Gentile, Reuters)

Italy's 'Vanity Fair' magazine showing Archbishop Georg Ganswein on the cover. Archbishop Georg Ganswein, Pope Benedict's private secretary, dubbed "Gorgeous George" by the Italian media, is now a real-life cover boy. (Tony Gentile, Reuters)

BODY LANGUAGE 

The Roman calendar of “hot” priests is becoming a modern Christmas tradition.

It has been around since 2003, started by Venetian photo-grapher Piero Pazzi, and it makes a popular souvenir even though it is entirely unofficial and there are doubts about whether all the handsome young men in their clerical rig are really priests. 

I'm not a great consumer of beefcake calendars, but the young men in these ones really are quite startlingly handsome —almost up to the standard set by Archbishop “Gorgeous George" Ganswein, Pope Benedict's private secretary, or George Clooney, who for years lit up my mother-in-law's kitchen.

The question, as always with religious stories, is why people want to believe in it. What is it about priests and sex In the Vatican context there is an obvious answer about the gay subcultures there — “a honeycomb of closets" as they have been described. If around half the priests in Rome are gay — and this is a perfectly reasonable figure – but all of them are supposed to be celibate, this kind of half-hinted “oo-er missus” innuendo makes perfect sense.

Then there is the straight counterpart to this: it seems that the handsome inexperienced young man — officially, of course, they're all virgins – appeals to a lot of women. Of course, the drawbacks of this can emerge with horrible clarity when you find yourself in bed with a man who is both feeling guilty and incompetent, as a friend of mine once did, but there must be plenty of people who have made the same discovery.

Male priests appear sexy in a lot of ways, either because they are young and seem in need of the guidance of an older woman or as fatherly authority figures. This isn't a purely Catholic phenomenon by any means. It is at the root of a lot of abusive relationships involving adults as well as of some entirely unabusive consenting relationships. 

But it is difficult when you are conducting an affair with a priest vowed to celibacy and operating inside a deeply patriarchal system in which the woman is always assumed to be to blame. The imbalance of power is just too great. I know a few women who have had affairs with Catholic priests and none found the experience satisfactory. 

It's easy to suppose that the thrill is one of violating a taboo, but I don't think that can be the entire explanation. Catholic priests are, of course, meant to be celibate and never marry. But this does not apply to Orthodox clergy and Rasputin was certainly not bound to celibacy.

Even people who reject dogmatic belief find spirituality and sex are closely linked. Both have transformative power. Both can touch on our deepest identities. They tell us who we are and who we love. So adepts in one field have a charge, an attraction, in the other one. Polygamy is the natural end result of patriarchy, whereas the woman with many lovers is regarded as  either a witch or a goddess. 

Even in totally atheistic cults, such as the Chinese communist party under Mao Zedong, it turns out that charismatic leadership is paid a sexual tribute. – © Guardian News & Media 2014


Andrew Brown is the editor of the belief section of the Guardian's Comment is Free section

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